Book Review: “Courage, Marshal Ney: Last Stand of the Bravest of the Brave” by James Mace

This book is about what we would today call a “conspiracy theory,” although the events in question actually predate the use of the term “conspiracy theory” by several decades. It’s based on the idea that Marshal Michel Ney, one of Napoleon’s greatest officers, faked his execution and fled to America, where he lived under the name Peter Stuart Ney until his real death in 1846.

The book examines, in great detail, how this might have happened and what it would have required in order to be true. In broad outlines, it paints Ney’s supposed escape as a slap in the face to the restored Bourbon King by the Duke of Wellington, in retaliation for the king’s ingratitude to England’s Iron Duke.

Ney is portrayed as brave and heroic, unafraid to repeatedly face death. Which, by all accounts he was; with some saying he actively hoped to be killed on the field at Waterloo, only to somehow, by some devilishly ironic miracle, survive the carnage.

I have to admit, the notion that Ney’s execution was faked undercuts one of the most hardcore stories of his bravery: that he gave the orders to his firing squad himself. What kind of courage it would take for a man to look down the barrels of loaded rifles and order them to be fired! Obviously, if it was all a sham, this lessens Ney’s mystique.

Speaking of lessening mystique, I want to discuss how this book portrays the Duke of Wellington. Wellington is kind of a divisive figure. The British, of course, love him and say he’s one of the greatest commanders in history. Bonapartists, on the other hand, tend to view him as a merely mediocre fighter who happened to get lucky against a vastly superior opponent.

There are plenty of facts one can cite to support either viewpoint. But the way this book portrays him, despite the fact that his actions help the heroic Ney, Wellington seems cold, aloof, snobbish and arrogant. Admittedly, you can see how someone called “the Iron Duke” is probably not a warm fuzzy guy, but nothing about him says “great leader.” He seems tough and smart, but without any great vision or charisma.

I guess the easiest way to say it is, imagine Wellington in a situation analogous to Napoleon on the road to Grenoble. (See dramatization here.) I wonder if a British infantryman, hauled from some workhouse and flogged into obeying the regulations of His Majesty, might not have tried a shot?

But, I’m going off-topic. Wellington and Napoleon aside, Ney is certainly a fascinating historical figure, and the mystery of his possible escape is an interesting one. If you forced me to offer an opinion, my guess is that it probably didn’t happen, and he really did die by firing squad. But I can’t say it with certainty.

I enjoyed this book very much, and am grateful to Pat Prescott for recommending this author, which is how I learned about it. Mace has a number of other intriguing historical novels as well, which I plan to read in the future.


  1. Thanks for the mention. This book is off the track for his other historical books. Usually he’s meticulous in getting all the facts right. I’ve never heard of Ney fleeing and coming to America. Bonaparte’s brother Joseph settled in New York, but not Ney? Have to check it out.

    1. I’d never heard of it before either, although after reading this I looked into it, and it seems like it’s a pretty popular rumor.

      1. Started listening to it this morning. Again, when it comes to describing the battle of Waterloo, the aftermath, he’s spot on. The back and forth from him in South Carolina and remembering the past is interesting.

        1. Yes, I liked that back-and-forth approach. I’ll be curious to hear what you think of the portrayal of Wellington.

  2. It is often a ‘fate’ of larger than Life figures not to have died at the time of the historical record (Hitler may still be running around out there). It was why English kings and Soviet leaders liked to display the bodies of their predecessors just to get the message home (Not that that stopped supporters of English King Richard II).
    Years back I came across one account of this tall, red headed French man turning up in Mexico (or was it Brazil?….) who fascinated local with his accounts and knowledge of Napoleon and the Wars, he was not named Ney. That story was that the firing squad refused to fire on this beloved hero and so he was spirted out. Nice romantic (in the old style) account.
    I’ve not read the book…yet, so sorry if I’m repeating stuff showing therein.
    If we accept the historical account Ney was politically ‘stitched up’ by The Bourbons. All the other senior officers were pardoned as they re-joined Napoleon after he had assumed office again, whereas Ney had gone over when the Bourbons were still ruling, so he was deemed a traitor. He had also claimed on the onset he would lead an army to arrest Napoleon and bring him back in an iron cage, then on meeting Napoleon switched sides.
    As this is fiction then Mace can do as he durn well pleases, and being steeped in Napoleonic Wars etc…this is something else I will have to read.
    Thanks for the heads up.
    (I gave up on Cornwall long ago. Not only was Sharpe consistently puppy-dog stupid when it came to women, but judging the number of events he was involved with he appeared to be possessed of an early steam-punk heli-jet)

    1. I always thought it was kind of a bad look for Ney to make the “iron cage” remark, then switch sides. I was talking to my dad about this book the other day, and he suggested that maybe Ney had been deliberately lying to the Bourbons in order to get a bunch of soldiers together he could then deliver up to Napoleon as he returned.

      Yeah, that’s usually what happens with historical fiction series. The protagonist always manages to be present for every important event. 🙂

      1. Your dad makes a good point. The other side of of the argument being Napoleon and his Marshalls did tend to have their spats, Ney being flamboyant might have been being volatile. Though coming back to your dad’s point it’s a fascinating conjecture.

        And inspired to your review, I managed to find the book on Audible, got it on a bargain deal by purchasing a kindle and audio book version together, so I can listen to it while doing chores… Win-win! 😀

  3. History is usually written by the victors so it’s always open to interpretation, but I couldn’t help wondering how a man like Ney would have lived ‘quietly’ in the US? From what I’ve read on this post and in comments, he doesn’t sound like a ‘live quietly’ type of person, so why would he even think he had to live quietly in a country so very far removed from France?
    Or perhaps that is covered in the book. Certainly an interesting story.

    1. Good point. Hard to imagine a veteran soldier retiring to the life of a quiet country school teacher.

  4. Haven’t heard of this author before. Not sure about this particular book, but his others look to be more appealing. Thanks for the review, bringing my attention to James Mace.
    As an aside, a man giving the orders to his own firing squad is, as the young folk say, hardcore!

    1. In an early draft of this review, I wrote that Ney was “metal as hell”. 😀

What's your stake in this, cowboy?